In Defence of Smartphones

Let’s face it, things change.

Even as a (relatively) young teacher I often find myself feeling out of touch with how fast things have moved on since I was a teenager. Just the other week, I presented a computer keyboard to one of my younger students in order to type her name and she explained that she didn’t really know how to use one. She’d only ever used tablets and phones.

Jesus, I felt old.

Yet when it comes to smartphones I’m not intimidated by them. For many teachers they are a scourge amongst teenage classes. They’re an obsession and a distraction, and they have no place in the classroom.

I disagree. Not only should you allow mobile phones in class, but you should integrate them into your activities from time to time.

Hear me out!

Er… I want my students to use their phones LESS…

When it comes to smartphones it’s easy to fall into the ‘No Phones in Class’ trap. Like all seemingly addictive pleasures, the first instinct of an ageing (see also, ‘out of touch’…) society is to forbid it until comes a time in the future that it becomes acceptable and we’re all too dead to mind.

We don’t understand it, we can’t relate to it and so it is deemed unproductive. It’s another distraction, and must be detrimental to the classroom. Consequently it has a negative effect on learning so we ban it.

Why do we do this? The short answer is that we feel threatened.

If we can’t relate to the students, if we can’t or empathise with them and their technology obsession we begin to doubt our ability to connect with them.

“…all they care about is their phones! I can’t get through to them!”

Connecting to teenagers is difficult, but if we can’t connect with them, they won’t respect us and we lose control of the classroom. You can see, therefore, why we feel threatened. If we can’t control a classroom, what kind of teacher are we?

A Different Perspective

What if I told you that by banning phones, you’re fighting an unwinnable battle? That by banning their use you’re actually creating further barriers between you and your students and reinforcing incredibly outdated teacher/student dynamics that just don’t work with the current generation?

Are phones a huge distraction? Absolutely! But they are also our main source of entertainment and interaction between people. They are our tour guide through new cities. They are our Yellow Pages. Smartphones are our pub quiz teammates and restaurant reviewers. They are our banking facilities and our lesson planners. We know and accept this in everyday life. You’re probably somewhat ‘addicted’ to one yourself. So why do we attempt to banish them from the classroom?

As irritating as they can be, phones are not just here to stay, but they are an intrinsic part of teenagers lives. Telling them to ‘put them away’ is simply no longer an option. It is no more motivating or acceptable to demand that students put away their phones than it is to tell them to sit up straight when the teacher is talking or to do P.E in their boxer shorts for forgetting their gym kit.

We have to understand that this generation have grown up with mobile phones as an integral means of social interaction, information discovery and pleasure. They are so important to them as people and so intrinsic to who they are. If we are to engage with them on a human level we need to respect that.

Allowing ‘Responsible’ Smartphone Use

“If we allow smartphones, won’t students just spend their lessons chatting away to their friends?”

This is the general response I get when I pitch this idea to teachers. They assume that by allowing smartphones students will abuse the privilege. But this is no more true than the idea that people go to ‘all you can eat’ buffets and eat themselves to death. What’s the first trick to gaining your students respect? Respect them. Respect their ability to moderate their own phone use and participation in the lesson. They may need a quiet reminder occasionally, but loosen the leash a bit and they will respond positively.

To oversimplify mobile phone use as simply time-wasting is patronising and wrong, and will create barriers between you and your students. Imagine, as an adult, being told in a language lesson to put your phone away! I wouldn’t accept it, and neither should your students.

Students can use their phones for a myriad of positive things, from quickly finding the answers to general knowledge questions to checking their spelling. You may feel that there are other, more ‘old school’ ways of achieving the same thing, but if your mind goes down that path I suggest you read the first line of this blog post!

Yes, their undivided attention would be great. I would argue, however that if giving you it is at odds with their preferred learning style they won’t learn effectively anyway.

Believe me, by allowing smartphones to be used responsibly in your lessons, your students will be more comfortable with you as a person. They will feel respected and thus more motivated to participate.

Integrating Smartphones into Your Lesson Plans

Now that you’ve created an atmosphere of mutual respect and responsibility for ones own actions, how do you build on it?

By slightly adapting some ‘classic’ activities you can easily breathe new life into them for a new generation. People don’t write letters anymore. Postcards are cute, but they’re dead. Do people go to the dictionary when they don’t understand a new word, or do they pick up their phone?

It just takes a little bit of creativity and a little bit of understanding of modern smartphones. It’s not even necessary to invent completely new activities. Just like your classroom manner, your current, tried and tested activities just require a small tweak. After all, they’re called ‘classics’ for a reason!

Here are three examples of ‘classic’ activities that can be easily adapted for a classroom practising ‘responsible smartphone use’.

Dictionary Race – Google Translate Brainstorm

  1. After your lead in to a new topic, start brainstorming terms related to the subject.
  2. If there are gaps, and you’re sure that you can’t elicit the responses you want, divide the class into two or three teams.
  3. Using their L1 or a drawing to explain the word you want them to look for, tell them that the first team to find the correct word on google translate gets a point.
  4. Repeat for the other terms that you want to teach.

I also like to use this game for synonyms, especially as the teenagers in Italy that I’ve taught have had a really strong grasp of simple vocabulary. I like to encourage them to find synonyms to words that they’ve drilled a thousand times. For example if they all know ‘sofa’, have them spontaneously find a common synonym beginning with ‘c’.

With a vocabulary heavy lesson I like to keep this game running throughout. The element of competition keeps the students engaged and the idea that the teacher may issue a new challenge at any time keeps them listening.

Writing a letter  – WhatsApping a Friend

Writing a letter to a friend or family member was already old-fashioned when I was in school. I still, to this day, have never written an informal letter and have rarely had need for a formal one. The activity still crops up regularly however as it is a rare opportunity to get your students a text in the first person.

In my adult life I never have the need to write long text by hand in my first language, let alone my second. Your students know this, and they won’t find it easy to engage with such a task.

Whilst a whatsapp conversation is generally shorter, it is much a more realistic situation for the students to find themselves in and can be adapted for a variety of topics and uses. Have a go!

  1. Approach the topic as normal. The usual suspects for this are ‘writing a postcard’ or ‘writing to a pen pal’.
  2. Instead of issuing a standard writing task, (typically alone…) pair them up with a friend or the person next to them. If there’s an odd number, WhatsApp allows group conversations.
  3. Have them instigate a WhatsApp conversation and approach the topic as not just a long text, but an interactive conversation. For example, a person texting their friend to let them know about their trip.
  4. The students should work in their pairs or groups to help write each part of the conversation together and check for grammar and spelling errors before sending the messages.
  5. After finishing, groups can feedback to the class as normal and get correction.

If your school is particularly well set up, perhaps with iPads and such, you could potentially use an internal messenger or iMessage to bring the conversations up on the screen for the class to read and correct. Alternatively, if you make it an email conversation it is much simpler to project. Unfortunately, even email is now archaic for conversing with friends.

Alternative activity – ‘Holiday/Weekend Statuses’. Instead of writing a postcard, prepare a random set of ‘holiday photos’ from stock images or ask the students to supply their own. Have them choose two or three and write ‘status updates’ for Facebook, describing where they are, what they are doing and how they are feeling.

Making arrangements role play – Sending voice messages

As a student I despised role plays. Because of this, I wasn’t comfortable with them when I started teaching. I appreciate now that a lot of students really enjoy this part of the lesson, but it took a long time for me to approach them confidently in the classroom.

In this time I devised a way for less confident students to get the speaking practise they needed without the nerves. By using the voice message feature on WhatsApp or iMessage (feature I personally can’t fathom the popularity of as a means of communication…) your students can quickly record short messages to their partners and play them back on loudspeaker.

This gives them the opportunity to practise their recording until they’re happy with it, whilst still being restrictive enough that they have to build fluency to get it right. Try the following…

  1. Set a speaking task that requires a short interaction between two people. It should be one that could realistically take place over text message. (arranging an evening out, going to the cinema, planning a party).
  2. Have the students first invent and practise a role play until they are relatively comfortable with the conversation.
  3. Ask the students to record the conversation as a chain of voice messages to each other.
  4. Students present their conversations as recordings. This spares them the nerves of having to stand up and act whilst still providing an opportunity for feedback.

If you have a class of confident students who like to role play then that’s fine. This does however provide a nice change of pace and an opportunity to integrate some smartphone use into the class.

Alternative activity – ‘Giving directions via text/voice message’. Voice messages are a great way of quickly explaining to someone how to get to your house or meeting place. Use the feature to get the students to quickly record a set of directions. This can then be played back to the class instead of acted out.

Bonus Activity – Heads Up

We all know the board game ‘Taboo’ is great to play in language lessons from time to time. ‘Heads Up’ is available on the app store and is a great, fun kinaesthetic twist on charades-style games.

One team member places a mobile phone against their forehead. The screen then displays random actions and the other students ‘act out’ what is displayed on the screen. The person with the phone then has to guess what they are doing. So, for example, the screen may say ‘standing in an elevator’ or ‘skiing down a mountain’. The instructions are generally simple. Also, as a lot of students can play at once it makes a great, engaging team game. Check it out!

And there’s more…

By using these types of activities I’ve discovered that it often alleviates the urge for my students to use their phones to procrastinate. By giving them ten minutes where they can ‘get their fix’ I find that their concentration improves in the following activity.

Whilst I think we all need to start to adapt our attitudes towards smartphones on an institutional level, I realise that perhaps in a large high school class these ideas just aren’t practical in the current climate. I hope, however, that from reading this people can begin to at respect the importance of the smartphone to today’s students and we can start to open our minds a little.

At the very least, you can now hopefully empathise with your students on a new level. You don’t have to feel frustrated or threatened when they ‘break the rules’.

Times have changed, and it needn’t be a bad thing.

Do you allow ‘responsible’ mobile phone use in class? Have you tried any of the activities above or anything similar? Am I talking a load of cobblers?

Please leave feedback and comments below! 

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